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Cry, the Dismembered Country

At this point, I will make an argument that departs from the received wisdom of the West and political correctness. I believe that, if it were possible, probably the least bad framework in which the peoples of former Yugoslavia might now start their slow journey to join a civilized, liberal, democratic Europe would be as a group of small nation-states with clear ethnic majorities. (By that I mean, as a very crude rule of thumb, with at least 80 percent belonging to one nationality.) I am definitely not arguing that separating out into such nation-states is the inevitable result of “ancient tribal hatreds” in the Balkans. Buried hatreds there surely were, but to revive, exacerbate, and exploit them was the culpable responsibility of bad leaders—Milosevic above all, but also Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. Nor am Iarguing that earlier, more forceful Western intervention could not have created different possibilities. I am simply arguing that now, after all that has happened, peaceful separation, where it is possible, might be a lesser evil. To adapt Shakespeare to the Balkans: Journeys end in haters parting.

If peoples really cannot live peacefully together, it is better that they live apart. To be sure, there is always a loss—cultural, economic, and political—in descending from the larger to the smaller state. And there is a human cost. I think of Violeta, a plucky Pristina journalist from a mixed Serb-Albanian marriage. What is she supposed to do? Cut herself in half?

But good fences might eventually make good neighbors. It is clear to every thinking person that this array of small and tiny states on the Balkan peninsula will sooner or later have to start cooperating again out of pure economic self-interest, if for no other reason. (One thing they already have, in practice though not in theory, is a common currency: the deutschmark. I suppose when the DM disappears in 2002 they will have to start using the euro.) Some talk dreamily of getting together again inside the European Union. A faint hope, seeing the current pace of EU enlargement. Others, more realistically, would start with a Balkan customs union. Adem Demaci preaches a confederation that he calls “Balkania.”

We are looking at an almost Hegelian dialectic here: separation as the path to integration. But is this dialectic so unfamiliar? After all, we in Western Europe have long since been molded into nation-states, in a process that lasted from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century. There are a few exceptions, to be sure, but even those exceptions, such as Belgium, increasingly divided between its French- and Flemish-speaking parts, or Scotland in Britain, are now proving difficult to sustain. (Yes, I know, there’s still trinational Switzerland, God bless her.) It’s precisely on this basis of clear separation into nation-states that we have been getting together in the European Union, as well as becoming more ethnically mixed again, through immigration.

In Central Europe, the process happened later, in the mid-twentieth century, through war, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the redrawing of frontiers. In the early 1990s, the process was completed by the peaceful “velvet divorce” of Czechs and Slovaks. In each case, it is a sad, hard truth that the resulting relative ethnic homogeneity has, in the medium term, helped each country’s return to the civilized, democratic community of states. And now the small new nation-state of Slovakia is following suit. Again, I am not saying that history had to go this way. I am merely saying that this is the way European history seems to have gone. But if that is true, then what we are proposing to do in our Balkan quasi protectorates is not just to freeze war. It is also to freeze history.

The trouble is this. Intellectually we may—although many Western policymakers still do not—see the case for separation, as a dialectical steppingstone to integration. But the modern liberal conscience rightly recoils from the means used throughout most of European history to achieve it, namely war, partition, forced assimilation, and ethnic cleansing. Yet where in former Yugoslavia can it happen without them?

The former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia was fortunate not only in being the most northern and economically advanced, but also in having a clear ethnic majority. As a result, it is today well on the way to joining the EUin the first wave of its eastward enlargement. In Croatia, we did in fact condone ethnic cleansing. We let Tudjman “cleanse” the Krajina of more than 150,000 Serbs in 1995, while his troops went on to do what we wanted them to do in Bosnia. (Yes, we protested, but very feebly.) The result is that Tudjman no longer has an ethnic “enemy within” to blame for the country’s woes. I believe the days of his nasty little demokratura are now numbered. Here the West has to work to hasten the advent of real democracy, as in Slovakia. Having got away with murder, Croatia, as a well-defined new nation-state, can then start its progress back to Europe. It may then also be more cooperative in respect of the Croat- controlled parts of Bosnia.

Some argue that Serbia without Kosovo would still be liable to further disintegration, with Montenegro, the Sandjak, and even the Vojvodina pulling away. This may yet happen, if Milosevic carries on as he is doing, starting with the incremental secession of Montenegro. But a Serbia without Kosovo and without Milosevic would have a reasonable chance of consolidating itself as a democratic federal republic. In this state, Serbs would constitute a clear majority.

In its policy toward Serbia, the West now has to work simultaneously with and against Milosevic. This is a difficult trick that we nonetheless managed in relations with the leaders of Eastern Europe in the last half of the cold war. We have to work with Milosevic to some extent, because of his direct power over Kosovo and his spoiling power in Bosnia. But we also have to work against him, to encourage much more energetically such fragmentary positive forces for change as there are in Belgrade. For as Made-leine Albright rightly insists, Milosevic is the single person most responsible for the bloody dissolution of former Yugoslavia. When he finally goes, I’m sure the British government will be delighted to welcome him to the VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport, as it recently did General Pinochet. And then, over a glass of lukewarm sherry, the Hague tribunal can present him with its sealed indictment.

In Kosovo, the intricate details of what has come to be known as “the Hill plan” are still fiercely disputed between Serbs and Albanians. But its basic points are now clear. It would restore the far-reaching autonomy of which the province was robbed in 1989, but not explicitly remove Kosovo from Serbia. It would devolve much power to local communes, thus allowing purely Albanian areas to have Albanian authorities and police, while mixed areas would supposedly have mixed ones. It foresees direct international involvement, especially in the reconstruction of the police and the conduct of new elections within six to nine months. And the whole arrangement should be subject to “comprehensive review” in three years’ time.

As this article goes to press, the hope is to move forward early in the new year to direct negotiations between the Serbian and Kosovo Albanian sides, with American and EU negotiators present to help things along. But it is very far from certain that this will produce an agreement, even after deploying the political cruise missile called Richard Holbrooke. If the negotiations fail, fighting in Kosovo will surely escalate around our unarmed “verifiers” when the snows melt in the spring. It will then only be a matter of time before we need to activate the French-led NATO “Extraction Force” (jokingly known as “the dentists”), recently deployed in northern Macedonia, in order to extract an imperiled verifier. However fleetingly, NATO will then have invaded Serbia.

If negotiations succeed, we will have another Western quasi protectorate. A conversation with Ambassador William Walker, the American head of the OSCE mission in Kosovo, makes it clear that he proposes to give a new dictionary meaning to the word “verifying.” The OSCE will mediate and supervise. In effect, the police will be OSCE-trained police, the elections will be OSCE-run elections, election-time television will be OSCE-television. But what happens then?

Ibelieve Kosovo is a case where we should think of working toward peaceful separation. The Albanians are more than 90 percent of the population in a well-defined territory. They have not achieved this preponderance by ethnic cleansing, as happened in Bosnia, so we would not be “condoning ethnic cleansing.” By their conduct in the province over the last decade, the Serbs have seriously diminished their moral right to rule. There is at least some legal basis for arguing that Kosovo was a constituent part of former Yugoslavia, and therefore could be recognized on a similar basis to the other successor states. Anyway, this is a special case, not an international precedent for ethnic self-determination.

Yet certainly this process would have to be managed very carefully over a number of years, with a major international presence. Those magnificent Serb monasteries do need a special status. More immediately, there is a real danger of another panic flight of innocent local Serbs. I ask an Albanian civil society activist in Pristina, a sophisticated woman speaking excellent English, what should be done about the Serbs in a free Kosovo. She slowly exhales the smoke from her cigarette and smiles at me. “Kill them all?” she says. A joke, you understand. Just a joke. But the hard men in the hills are not joking. Without firm preventive action, we will again be party to ethnic cleansing by terror.

Macedonia’s Albanian leaders tell me independence for Kosovo would stabilize the situation in Macedonia. In the short run, this may be right, since few things could be more immediately dangerous than those young Albanian Macedonians joining a renewed war in Kosovo. But in the long run, I don’t believe this. History suggests that a contemporary European state with a less than 80 percent ethnic majority is inherently unstable. If the large and growing minority happens to be Albanian, and contiguous to the motherland, it is even more so. Albanians in former Yugoslavia have been victims, there is no doubt of that. Yet there is also a complex, patient, but stubborn Albanian nationalism. Without continued American and West European involvement in both Macedonia and the anarchic state of Albania itself, and in coaxing along their relations with their neighbors, the last act in Belgrade may not be the last one after all.

Finally, there is insoluble Bosnia. My Sarajevan friends are delighted with the 10,000 foreigners living there, and the $9 billion being spent on the country every year. They tell me that Sarajevo has never in its history been so genuinely cosmopolitan. The new cafés are pulsating. Increasingly, the Office of the High Representative, headed by the Spanish diplomat Carlos Westendorp, rules like a colonial administration. It’s tempting to say that Bosnia-Herzegovina has again become an Austro-Hungarian protectorate, as it was after the Congress of Berlin, with the Americans as the Austrian Habsburgs and us West Europeans as the Hungarian junior partner (although picking up most of the bill). But it’s not a real protectorate. Rather, it’s a bizarre novelty in international relations. We have had protectorates before. We have had partitions before. This is half protectorate, half partition.

The official ideology of all Western agencies is that the unitary state is being pulled together again. It’s just taking rather a long time. Alas, I don’t believe this either. I fear all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not put this Humpty-Dumpty together again. But final partition is an even less acceptable option than this quixotic undertaking. For the Bosniaks to have a serious, workable state, you would need to give them at least part of the western half of the “Serb Republic.” That would almost certainly mean more bloodshed and tens of thousands more people driven from their homes. If, on the other hand, you allowed the Serb- and Croat-run parts to secede as they are, you would be left with a landlocked rump Bosniak state. Some Bosniaks warn that this could turn their people into Muslim fundamentalist nationalists. The result would be a “Gaza strip in the middle of Europe.”

In fact the Bosniaks hold an amazing moral double-lock on the conscience of the West. In effect, they say: “We are the Jews of the Balkans and the Palestinians of the Balkans!” The Jews, because no people in Europe has suffered something as close to genocide since the Jews in the Holocaust. So how could we abandon them? The Palestinians, for the reasons already given. I very much doubt that a rump Bosnia would actually become a Muslim fundamentalist state. But in a sense this reality doesn’t matter. Earlier this autumn, the former German defense minister Volker Rühe told me that the deepest issue in Bosnia and Kosovo is “whether the West sees a place for Islam in Europe.” Powerful Islamic countries agree. Faced with these complementary perceptions of the powerful, the local truth is largely irrelevant.

So in some parts of former Yugoslavia, violent separation has already happened. In Kosovo, there remains a difficult but still Humvee-navigable dirt road to peaceful separation. That road we should take. Elsewhere, in Bosnia, but in a different way also in Macedonia, I see no morally acceptable alternative to a direct Western involvement lasting many years, probably decades. Even if, intellectually, we will the end of separation, we cannot will the means.

But why on earth should Americans be the new Habsburgs? Why should American diplomats enter the twenty-first century trying to solve problems left over from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth? Why should sons of Kansas and daughters of Ohio risk their lives in these perilous, snow-covered mountains (“What do you need? Plastic?”) to stop Europeans from fighting over obscure patches of territory? After all, the great-grandparents of some of these Americans probably fled these very mountains to escape just these squabbles.

The vital national interest is indeed hard to see. The new catchall bogey of “regional instability” hardly compares with the old fear of the Soviet Union getting the upper hand in the cold war. But empires, especially informal, liberal empires, are like that. You muddle in; then somehow you can’t quite muddle out. Somalia never had the moral double-lock that Bosnia has. For the Balkans, this has been a decade of Western bluster. First, we had the Western bluster of intervention. Now we have the Western bluster of withdrawal. I don’t believe this bluster either. I think the sons of Kansas and the daughters of Ohio will be here for a good, long time.

Take up the white man’s burden,” Rudyard Kipling wrote a hundred years ago, welcoming the United States’ willingness, in the Philippines, “To wait in heavy harness/On fluttered folk and wild.” There, and elsewhere, he prophesied, Americans would reap only “The blame of those ye better/The hate of those ye guard.” Today, some of the finest white men are, of course, black. And the local savages are Europeans.

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